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Commentary
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

With this play Eugene O'Neill established himself as a playwright of genius. Here everything seems to have fallen into place to create a major work of tragic art. It is sometimes said that tragedy is impossible of achievement by modern playwrights, but with Desire Under the Elms, I believe that O'Neill has given that statement the lie. He has developed a play with an American setting and a recognizable locale with its historical and emotional connotations of Puritanism, Protestant ethic, and hardness, but he has superimposed that mythic structure on the ancient myths of Greek drama. One can easily recognize the three basic myths included in this tragedy, Oedipus, Phaedra, and Medea. But the important thing about this play is the freedom with which O'Neill melds these elements into something different by the addition of other psychological-philosophical sources—Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. And out of this collection of materials he managed to create a modern approximation of the Aristotelian pity and fear. His characters seem indeed to be the prisoners of their own destiny, and a hostile first principle broods over their acts, forever forbidding happiness in this life. Only at the end, in a spiritual union, a renunciation of life through love that is unselfish, do the central characters gain a glimmer of something better as they look up at the sunrise.

 

The Oedipal struggle between father and son is clear from the beginning in the way that Eben's close relationship with his mother is conveyed and also his rage that he has been cheated of Ephraim's farm. It is, then, but a short step to Freud and Eben's acting out of the Oedipal aspect of man's existence by having sexual intercourse first with Min and then with Abbie. Abbie is, of course, a combination of Phaedra and Medea, a statement which also gives Eben some of the qualities of Hippolytus, and certainly he is at first reluctant to recognize his physical longing for Abbie. But the intrusion of the Medea myth is unexpected in the play, and Abbie realizes that she should have murdered Ephraim, but it nonetheless strengthens her characterization as a woman who gives up everything for love. In her case, she has married in hope of possessing the farm, and she feels herself to be part of nature and even of the farm. As a result, in killing the baby she is cutting herself off from her place, her dreams, her love, and her true identity. She is a creature of Nature and physicality, yet she murders the product of that part of her in order to regain the love of Eben. Here, certainly, the myth gives added resonance.

 

From Nietzsche, O'Neill has taken the concept of the Apollonian and Dionysian duality which he later used more specifically in The Great God Brown. Here he transposes the situation to Ephraim and his vision of God, who is "hard an' lonesome." The whole metaphor of the stones and the hardness of life imposed by the Apollonian-Puritan God upon Cabot is contrasted with his occasional longing for the "easy" God which he had found in the Middle West where one had merely to plant a field and watch the crops grow. Even at the end of the play, Ephraim has a sneaking desire to follow that "easy" God when he speaks of leaving for the West and the goldfields. The stem God does not always remain in total control of Ephraim, as is evidenced by his two momentary lapses in the spring but even more particularly in the Dionysian revel celebrating the birth of Abbie's son. There he turns into a satyr-figure—laughing, capering, drinking, celebrating—reaching a momentary intoxication of joy that blinds and deafens him to what is being said and done around him. His Dionysian side is also in tune with nature because he is in tune with the seasons when he leaves his farm to seek God's will. Here, he also follows the voice of his commanding Apollonian-Puritan God, but in marrying Abbie, he follows the instincts of Dionysus. The great key to the theology of the play (and I do not think this word is too strong) is Ephraim's long monologue to Abbie in Part II, Scene ii, where he tells of his attempt to quit the farm, of his time in the Middle West, and then his return to the rock-strewn farm which had made him as hard as the stone walls he has built. He sees them as a testament to God, but his sons Simeon and Peter perceive them as prison walls. Eben, on the other hand, considers them more as a protective device for his own world—the farm, from which he fears displacement. Both Eben and his father feel themselves part of the farm, and their kinship with nature and the seasons makes their basic conflict credible. The two men are more alike than they realize, but Eben has the ability to love, while Ephraim has not. For this reason Ephraim is always lonesome, always private, revealing himself only to his wrathful, judgmental God, and also to the cows, the only living things with whom he really feels comfortable because, as animals, they do not threaten him into giving too much rein to his physical, Dionysian nature.

 

In two other aspects O'Neill succeeded brilliantly in this play—in the use of language and sets. The language is spare, laconic, and dialectal, yet through it O'Neill is able to convey an extraordinary emotional power and also communicate theological and philosophical concepts without resort to the lyricism which sounds so strained in plays such as The Fountain.  For instance, the almost monosyllabic speeches of the brothers in the first two scenes indicate, through their differing reactions to the sunset, quite separate people. Eben thinks of the farm as his own, Simeon remembers his dead wife, and Peter thinks of the gold in California. Even Ephraim's long monologue is pure dialect, yet at the same time it achieves a kind of poetry which O'Neill in his more self-conscious moments was unable to manage.

 

In terms of the set, O'Neill was himself largely responsible for its design, and he specified his requirements in drawings. It is a permanent set, with the scenes shifting among the various rooms which are emphasized by means of light. One possible defect in this set would seem to be the elms themselves. The stage directions speak of their "sinister maternity" and the way their branches rest on the roof like "hands and hair"; but the trees are never exploited, and certainly it never rains in the course of the play so that "their tears trickle down monotonously and rot the shingles." Perhaps they are meant to give some sense of the fatal destiny of the house of Cabot, but the stone walls of the farm are a better symbol. Nevertheless, throughout the play O'Neill shows himself completely cognizant of the action as it develops on this particular set, and his contrapuntal use of words and images is excellent. The celebration scene in Part III, Scene i, for instance, is brilliant in its contrasts, while the bedroom scene in Part II, Scene i, with Eben on one side and Abbie and Ephraim on the other, is superb in showing the almost telepathic communication between the lovers. The farmhouse and the farm are really central characters in the play, and hence the Sheriff's ironic closing lines seem most a propos. Those lines are an epitaph for Ephraim and for the farm itself, and an act of devout respect to the God who made it possible—but at a cost the Sheriff can neither know nor understand. Only the three Cabots understand as they go off into their sunrise. In their imprisonment, they all find freedom under the aegis of a mighty and cruel God.

 

The subject matter of the play caused it to be banned in Boston, and it was refused a public performance in England until 1940. With other audiences, however, Desire Under the Elms was well received and has since become one of the most frequently revived of O'Neill's plays. O'Neill himself claimed that he had dreamed the play and that he wrote it at great speed; perhaps that accounts for the tightness of the writing and the spare dialogue. But his growing experience with the stage is undoubtedly the reason for the skillful construction, the use of association (notably the quotations from The Song of Solomon), and the excellent curtain lines. But above all else, O'Neill's skillful fusion of classical and American myth gave to this play a power not before seen in the American theatre.

 

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